I feel like I wouldn’t be able to come back if it wasn’t for this program. And that’s one thing I’m really grateful for, the Utah program, (coach Kyle Whittingham) and how family-oriented they all are. —Salesi "Leka" Uhatafe
SALT LAKE CITY — As the plane prepared to land, the cabin bustled to life, waking Salesi "Leka" Uhatafe.
His father still slept a seat away, next to the aisle, so the 19-year-old slid the window shade up and stared outside. There wasn't much to see until the jet slowly turned toward the aiport hangar. That's when he saw them — familiar faces lining the path that the plane’s passengers would walk to access the gate.
“I saw all of my family and friends, lined up across the (tarmac) wearing yellow coats,” he said last Thursday after one of Utah’s spring practices. “I told my dad to look, he was still half-asleep. But he looked, and then he told me to close it and started crying.”
The tears Salesi Uhatafe Sr. shed were an agonizing mix of gratitude and grief. He and his son, Leka, who is a freshman offensive lineman at the University of Utah, were the only survivors in a devastating car accident last July.
Navigating the unfathomable loss became bearable, in large part, because of the overwhelming outpouring of love and support the Uhatafes received both in their home state of Texas as well as in Utah.
“It was crazy,” said the soft-spoken but quick-witted lineman. He said the support was both a comfort and a raw reminder of what he and his family lost in the early-morning hours of Tuesday, July 30, 2013.
The crash, which happened on a lonely stretch of New Mexico highway during a one-week break Utah football players had before fall camp began, claimed the lives of both of Leka’s brothers and one of his best friends: Polo Manukainiu, Leka’s 19-year-old step-brother who was a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M; his 13-year-old brother, Andrew “Lolo” Uhatafe; and close friend and Trinity High teammate Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku, who was an incoming freshman defensive lineman for the U.
Leka Uhatafe was behind the wheel and was the only one wearing a seat belt when the crash occurred. The men were taking turns driving as they tried to travel the 1,200 miles from Salt Lake to their hometown of Euless, Texas, as quickly as possible. Police believe Uhatafe fell asleep, possibly waking and overcorrecting, causing the SUV to roll.
The agony of what the family lost in the wake of the accident was so severe, Leka Uhatafe said he considered going back to Utah and returning just for the burial of his brothers and friend.
“Polynesian funerals, they go on for like a week,” Leka said, adding the family was involved in fundraisers and tributes at both the local junior high, high school and the LDS community to which his parents belong. “It was kind of hard, but at the same time, it was better for me to stay there and mourn.”
When he returned to Salt Lake City, the day after his brothers were buried, he said he knew immediately he would have both the space and support he needed to heal.
“It was good just to keep my mind off of things, to focus on something else,” said Uhatafe, who used his redshirt season after the accident. “That really helped me through the process. They were just welcoming with open arms, joking and, you know, I didn’t want to be treated differently. I’m not here to get special treatment.”
Pity was too painful, so it was a relief to him that when his football brothers welcomed him, they did so with humor. He said it is difficult for those who’ve never played the sport to understand the kind of bond that is created among teammates.
“I feel like I wouldn’t be able to come back if it wasn’t for this program,” he said. “And that’s one thing I’m really grateful for, the Utah program, (coach Kyle Whittingham) and how family-oriented they all are.”
Whittingham isn’t surprised to hear his program described as a family. It is a culture he hoped to cultivate when he took over in 2005 and is a point of particular emphasis and pride for coaches.
“Creating a family atmosphere and camaraderie between players and coaches, it’s something very important to us,” he said. “We feel we have something very special here in that regard.”
Whittingham said the familial atmosphere has persisted through coaching changes as well as players coming in and out of the program. Sometimes the uniform they wear and a passion for football are all they have in common.
“We have the most diverse teams in America,” he said, citing the various religions, cultures and ethnicities represented on the Utes’ roster. “We have 18- and 19-year-old freshman and 25-year-old seniors. We’re a melting pot, and we take a lot of pride in that.”
Whittingham was not concerned when Uhatafe returned to school so quickly.
"I knew our players would embrace him and take care of him," the coach said. "I thought it was the best thing for him to come back and be with his teammates."
That family-like atmosphere was one of the reasons Uhatafe chose Utah. While his Trinity teammates Vaenuku and freshman defensive lineman Sam Tevi (a year younger) enjoyed the spotlight of being some of the state’s top recruits, he said he didn’t even have any offers until the spring of his junior year.
“I wasn’t getting any looks because I didn’t play the year before,” he said. “Before Utah was looking at them, they said, ‘You guys want to go to the same school?’ I was like, ‘Heck no. I want to have my own college experience. I’ve known you guys since we were young and I wanted to get out on my own.’ They were both serious, but I thought I would end up going to a smaller school.”
He believes Vaenuku opened the door for him with Utah coaches after Arizona State withdrew an offer to him. Uhatafe visited Utah’s campus during the fall of his senior season and committed to Whittingham before he even boarded the plane to head home.
He didn’t know it then, but choosing a place because it felt like home turned out to be critical in enduring the loss of his brothers.
“I had a lot of support from people around the community and some family here,” he said. “This was kind of a home away from home.”
Uhatafe said he could “go on for years” discussing what he missed and what he admired about Vaenuku and his brothers.
Vaenuku, he said, was not only the guy he lined up against in prep practices, but pretty much his polar opposite. While he is quiet and reserved, Vaenuku was outgoing, funny and comfortable as the center of attention.
“Hanging out with him, he was always the center of attention,” Uhatafe said. “He lived in the spotlight. Being around him kind of brought that out in me.”
His older brother, Polo Manukainiu, was an example and mentor to him. He shared his experiences of being recruiting, and while he chose to attend Texas A&M, Utah was in his top three until he committed. Manukainiu redshirted his freshman year, but Uhatafe said he learned a lot from his brother’s experiences in college.
“I could picture in my head how my first year would go because of him,” he said. He also saw how generous and thoughtful his brother was.
While many college students can barely get by on the monthly checks athletes receive for food and living expenses, Manukainiu always managed to share what he got with his family.
“I saw how he would send money whenever he’d get his (stipend) checks,” Uhatafe said. “Whenever we were short on food, he’d send us money. We’d go pick up the money and you could just see how happy everyone was. I thought, ‘I want to do this same thing.’ That kind of pushed me, lit a fire in my belly.”
And then there was his younger brother, Lolo Uhatafe. He was a promising quarterback who did not have the height and size his brothers enjoyed.
“He always looked up to us, so we tried to set a good example,” he said, smiling. “He was so different from us. He was super short; I’m 6 foot 4 and my older brother was 6 foot 5, and he barely came up to our belly buttons. But he had fight in him. He had heart, and he hated losing.”
He said he hears his brothers and his friend chiding and encouraging him as he battles for a starting spot on Utah’s offensive line.
“They’d probably make fun of me, all the mess-ups, but kind of push me at the same time,” he said, the smile returning to his face.
Last week, the freshman was promoted to No. 1 on the depth chart at right guard, but he isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“It’s only spring,” he said. “I’m trying to stay humble and go about each day as though I’m on the bottom. This is a different position (he played offensive tackle in high school), I’ve never played until this spring.”
Hard work is a value instilled in all of his siblings by his parents.
Uhatafe’s father always told his children that anything they chose to do deserved their best effort. That was a lesson mostly lost on Leka until the accident.
“Our dad always told us, ‘If you want to be successful, you have to put everything you’ve got into whatever it is you do,'” he recalled. “But I was never like that. I just kind of got by, just enough to make it through. But after all of that, I feel like I have a whole new view on things.”
He said his perspective began to shift when he saw his family and friends at the airport. But it was leaving home and returning to Utah that convinced him it would be an insult to his brothers and his friend if he took a single play for granted.
“It just kind of hit me when I came back here,” he said. “I was wondering what will this be like because it was always supposed to be me and my brothers making it big. Now they’re gone and I felt like it was on me, put that on my chest. At first I was kind of nervous about it, but at the same time, I felt like I wanted that burden on me.”
He said healing is a “day-by-day” proposition, but playing to honor their memories helps. He is also grateful for the continued support of his family. His mom texts him daily, while his dad checks in every few days.
“My mom will try to hold a conversation as long as she possibly can before I tell her I have to leave,” he said laughing. “But my dad is short, sweet and to the point. Sometimes I try to hold a conversation with him as long as I can.”
Uhatafe said the full weight of how his family has been changed didn’t hit him until he went home for Christmas a few months ago.
“It’s different,” he said, his voice softening. “I left right away so I didn’t have a chance to stay at home and see how different it was, like the transition to not having one of my brothers there. It was weird going home for Christmas break and seeing that.”
The biggest difference, he said, is that his younger brother, often mothered by their six sisters, is no longer there fending off their affection or advice.
“When you’d go home, all you’d hear is my little brother arguing with all of my sisters,” he said, laughing at the memory. “It was weird going home and seeing how quiet the house was.”
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